The first recorded mention of tea was in the Shijing, or Book of Songs, dating back to 1122 BCE. The character that appears in this text is tu (荼), referring to some variant of bitter vegetable used as a tisane – but whether this was a true tea made from the Camellia sinensis plant is not known. Documentation of tea drinking was fairly scarce during this time, and no further speculation will be entertained here.
During the Tang dynasty (618 – 901), tea drinking was widespread in China and its most common form was steamed leaves pounded, occasionally with additives such as ginger, onion, orange zest, and rice, into the shape of a cake – similar to the Pu’er cakes that are produced today. The Tang dynasty also saw several other milestones of tea history – the entry of a distinct character for tea, cha (茶) into the Chinese lexicon, the publication of the first book devoted to tea, the Cha Jing, or Classic of Tea, by Lu Yu, and the introduction of tea to Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. The Japanese would go on to refine the daily ritual of tea drinking into the meditative practice of chado, or Way of Tea, which has similarities to the Chinese art of the Gongfu tea ceremony.
The Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) saw the advent of the loose leaf teas, which provided a foundation for the development of more complicated processing techniques. In the 13th century, unfermented tea leaves were pan-fried before being rolled and dried. This technique inactivates the enzymes involved in the natural oxidation of tea leaves, allowing them to retain their green color. The famous Longjing, or Dragonwell, green tea from the Zhejiang province is made in a similar process, as are many other teas. Oolong tea, which is tea oxidized to an intermediate degree between green and black tea, was invented in the 15th century by allowing the tea leaves to partially ferment before heat-inactivation of the oxidation process.
The first cases of tea reached London in 1645 and quickly became in vogue among the aristocracy of English society. During the late 18th century and early 19th century, tea drinking became popular amongst the British working class, in part due to the changing mealtimes and working hours of the Industrial Revolution. By this point in time, black tea was much more popular than green tea in England, as was the now modern practice of drinking tea with milk and sugar. Indeed, the amount of tea import strongly correlated with sugar import and played no small role in the proliferation of slave-run sugar plantations in Africa and the Americas.
In the 19th century, trade relations with the Qing dynasty of China grew sour as the Qianlong emperor demanded that Chinese tea must be paid with silver. The British began exporting large amounts of opium to China to generate this silver, but trade restrictions on opium grew more stringent as opium dependency grew rampant across Chinese society. The tea trade was a significant source of revenue for the British Empire and these growing tensions erupted into the First Opium War of 1839 – 1842, which resulted in the re-opening of Chinese ports and the concession of Hong Kong to the British. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the British sought a way of circumventing Chinese tea dependency by growing tea in India.
In 1823, East India Company employee Robert Bruce discovered wild tea trees in the jungles of Assam, India and the first tea plantation in India was started in 1834 by Bruce’s brother, Charles Alexander Bruce. Unfortunately, Western knowledge on tea cultivation was limited and the initial shipments of Indian tea to England were met with disappointment. It wasn’t until the efforts of Botanist Robert Fortune, who infiltrated the tea plantations of China under the guise of a tea merchant, that the British tea program began to flourish. Fortune brought back 20,000 tea plants, 80 Chinese laborers, and importantly, the knowledge that green and black teas originated from the same plant but were processed in different ways. Plantations in Assam, Darjeeling, and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), augmented by British industrialization, would go on to become major producers of black teas.
Tea in America, by virtue of being a British colony, was extremely popular until the events of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. Angered by the oppressive taxes of the British Parliament subsidizing tea exports from the East India Company, demonstrators boarded a trade ship in Boston harbor and destroyed an entire shipment of tea. These events were one of many that led to the American Revolutionary War, and thereafter tea drinking was viewed as unpatriotic. Tisanes of sage, dandelion, and peppermint were consumed in its stead and importantly, coffee became and remains to this day more popular than brewed tea. Within the past century, tea has made a comeback in the United States after the introduction of the tea bag in 1904, as well as growing consumer demand for high quality loose leaf teas and iced teas.
The British Empire and China were the major players in globalizing the consumption of tea, but the rich tea cultures of countries such as Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Russia, and Taiwan also deserve mention. Worldwide, tea is the second most consumed beverage after water, and its proliferation through history has had a surprisingly significant influence on the course of world events.